A debut about a famous fin-de-siècle figure.
Lou Andreas-Salomé was born in St. Petersburg in 1861. She died in Göttingen, Germany, in 1937. Her life spanned several historic epochs: the end of the Russian empire, the entirety of the Weimer Republic, the ascendancy of the Nazi Party. She knew Wagner, Tolstoy, Rodin and Marlene Dietrich. She was a prolific writer, with published works varying from roman à clef to philosophy. But she is best remembered for relationships with three of the great men of her time: Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke and Sigmund Freud. The tragedy of muses and mistresses, of course, is that their histories are contingent; no matter what they achieve, they are inevitably overshadowed by the men to whom they attach themselves. A woman of Lou’s experience and accomplishment, however, demands a vividly imagined and elegantly executed novel. This is not that novel. The author has done her homework—she translated Lou’s biography of Rilke into English—and she’s certainly earnest, but that’s not enough. Exposition is offered in place of action, and the dialogue is composed almost entirely of baroque declarations. The famous names are ciphers, and Lou herself never quite becomes a real person. To the extent that Lou emerges at all, she’s insufferably self-absorbed, which makes it especially unfortunate that she’s not only the novel’s protagonist, but also its narrator. Von der Lippe mostly ignores Lou’s work in favor of her relationships—with both the famous and the not-so-famous—but she never really explores or explains why this woman was so fascinating to such an astounding array of geniuses. The frame story, in which a contemporary academic investigates Lou’s life to fulfill her grandmother’s dying wish, is not just superfluous, but confusing: It’s never quite clear, but it seems that Lou is dictating this story from beyond the grave.
The truth about Lou? Not likely.